Twitter Facebook Myspace

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

In their book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Penguin Putnam, 2000), authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen tell us how to engage in conversations in our professional or personal lives that make us uncomfortable. Tough, honest conversations are critical for managers, whether they need to change the group culture, manage conflict within a team, give a negative performance evaluation, disagree with others in a group, or offer an apology.

The authors of Difficult Conversations give the following advice: To set the stage for a productive discussion, open a difficult conversation with the Third Story. The Third Story is the story an impartial observer, such as a mediator, would tell; it’s a version of events both sides can agree on. “The key is learning to describe the gap—or difference—between your story and the other person’s story. Whatever else you may think and feel, you can at least agree that you and the other person see things differently,” Stone, Patton, and Heen write.

Suppose two regional sales reps share responsibility for sending weekly updates to their manager. Brad always submits them on time, but Frank often turns them in late. Saying, “Frank, you’ve turned in the sales reports late again” would only put Frank on the defensive. Instead, Brad opens the conversation this way: “Frank, you and I place a different value on deadlines. I want to explain why meeting them is important to me, and then I’d like to hear your take on them.”

Brad learns that Frank, when faced with the choice of possibly making a sale or compiling the report, thinks he should focus on the sale. With this insight, Brad proposes another way to share responsibilities: Brad will complete the report when it’s Frank’s turn to do so, as long as Frank gives Brad two hours’ notice and a share in any commission Frank earns as a result of being able to continue pursuing a lead.

Would you like a copy of this excellent book? Click here.

Difficult Conversations

Photo by Dopey LaRue on Flickr

Article from Peace Talks Mediation Services May Newsletter

Difficult Conversations

Sooner or later, you’ll need to have a difficult conversation. Whether it’s “I turned my back for a minute and now we’re in the emergency room” or “this relationship isn’t working for me anymore” or even “I feel like I can’t talk to you because all you do is shut me down,” it’s going to happen.

Here are some tips for making your next difficult conversation as smooth as possible.

1. Plan ahead: What is your purpose for having the conversation? What do you hope to accomplish? What would be an ideal outcome? How can you word your opening sentences so that they are supportive, and not critical or condescending? Write out your goals on a piece of paper if you’ll need a prompt.

2. Don’t assume: What assumptions are you making about the other person’s intentions? Although you may feel intimidated, ignored, disrespected, or worse, are you sure they meant it that way? It’s easy to misinterpret what someone says, particularly when it’s via e-mail or voice mail.

3. Watch for triggers: Is the situation pushing your buttons? If you step back for a moment, are you more emotional than the situation warrants? Are you having a reaction that has more to do with your personal history than with the actual situation? You may still need to have the conversation, but you’ll go into it acknowledging that some of the heightened emotional state has to do with you.

4. Check your attitude: Your attitude influences the outcome. If you think the conversation will go poorly, it probably will. If you believe that the conversation, even though it’s difficult, will result in some good, then it probably will. Adjust your attitude for maximum effectiveness.

5. Put yourself in their place: Think about the other person. What might they be thinking about this situation? Are they even aware of the problem? If so, how do you think they perceive it? What will be their main concerns? What solution do you think they would suggest? Use some empathy to see the topic from a different perspective.

6. Look for commonalities: Is the situation you’re addressing something that may also be troubling the other person? Are there any common concerns? Could there be? Sometimes a difficult problem has a wider impact than just you, even though no one else may have brought it up yet because they dread having this difficult conversation.

7. Own your part: How have you contributed to the problem? It’s easy to figure out how the other person contributed. But what was your role in what happened? Are you ready to take responsibility for your part, even if you feel the other person is mostly to blame?

© 2010 Diana Mercer and Katie Jane Wennechuk. Excerpted from Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys for Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Perigee, December 2010). Contact: diana1159@aol.com